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Our Fishing Heritage
Chapter 17. Technological Change


It was my first day on the banks of Lake Kariba. Just weeks before I had said goodbye to the rough waters of the North Sea with its sturdy, powerful, trawlers and seiners. Now I gazed on this calm body of fresh water stretching 120 miles along the Zambesi valley south of the Victoria Falls. The dam had been completed the year before, and now the lake level had risen to near its full capacity. Thousands of Batonga tribesmen had been displaced from their traditional villages on the banks of the Zambesi river, and, after some understandable resistance, had been resettled around the shores of the new lake. Subsistence farmers all their former lives, they had grown maize corn which they dried and pounded into a rough flour used to make their staple food of mealie-meal porridge. Some of the corn was fermented in 45 gallon drums to brew the potent native beer the men enjoyed. What little fishing they did in the river was conducted from crude dug-out canoes made from the trunks of the largest local trees. But now they had an enormous lake to harvest. And fish, unlike maize, were a cash crop. So most of the Kariba lake Tonga had money in their hands for the first time in their experience. They soon began to replace their traditional river canoes with planked boats. A metal box manufacturer fabricated some steel boats for the fishery. They were heavy and slow to paddle, and quite unseaworthy on the choppy conditions of the lake. They were sold to fishermen on 3-year loans, but their bottoms rusted out after one year.

But to go back to my first impressions of the Zambesi valley fishery, - I watched as a warped dug-out canoe headed out from the shore in the afternoon, to set its nets in one of the areas that had been cleared of trees before the water rose. The nets would be hauled after sunrise next day, with dozens of fat tilapias, carps and catfish which would mostly sold for a standard price of 4 pence per lb then, paid by traders from the copper-belt towns came to the lake in an assortment of trucks. (At that time a labourer’s wage was one shilling and ten-pence halfpenny per day, so a catch of 11 lbs of fish would be equal to two days labour).

Each truck carried blocks of ice buried in sawdust for insulation, - a technique that worked quite well. The fish purchased were packed in the ice which was broken into small pieces for that purpose. A layer of leaves, grass and sawdust covered to top of the iced fish, then the container was closed until the truck arrived at the markets in Kitwe, Ndola, and Mufulira, some 300 miles to the north, where thousands of miners and their wives would purchase the Kariba fish at prices around double what the fishermen received. Buyers who could not get ice, or had no truck, would hard-smoke the fish and wrap them in basket-like containers of branches and leaves. These would be carried on any available transport for sale by the main road or railway line above the escarpment that surrounded the valley.

The dug-out I watched was paddled by a crew of three. Its nets were of thin white nylon twine, 4 inch mesh, made at Kenyon’s net factory in Salisbury, Southern Rhodesia. (I was later to get the mesh sizes increased to 5, 5˝, and 6 inch, with no loss of catch weight). Modern synthetic materials ended there however, as the floats were of local wood, and the weights of clay. But the little canoe was obviously making money, as the ‘skipper’. If we can call him that, was seated on the stern, wearing a pair of plastic sunglasses. He was not having to paddle. Instead, on his knees he held a battery-powered transistor radio which was blaring out music from a local radio station, thereby entertaining the crew, and probably also scaring the fish away from that part of the lake !. It all looked rather incongruous to me. But over the years to come, and in many parts of the world, I was to find that sudden access to money and technology could impact on primitive fisheries in some strange ways.

The outboard motor is an example of a modern propulsion unit that is globally available and easy to use, but it consumes a lot of fuel, and needs regular replacement of expensive spare parts. Promoted in the 60’s and 70’s by Jan-Olaf Traung of FAO, it was useful to a point in the era of cheap fuel, but now whole fleets in West Africa and the Pacific are stuck with this uneconomic unit of propulsion which has a short working life. The larger artisanal fleets of India, Indo-China, and S.E. Asia in contrast, opted for the simple power-pole. This was an ordinary small motor as was used to drive pumps or generators, which was attached directly to a long shaft with a propeller at the end. The unit was fitted in a metal frame and tied or strapped to the side of the boat or the canoe. A tiller arm was attached so the long-tail as it was called, could be used as a steering pole as well as for propulsion. Crude but effective, the power-pole spread rapidly throughout the fisheries of Thailand, Indonesia, and neighbouring countries. Today there are hundreds of thousands of these low-cost, economical units in use. Unlike the outboard motor, they can be fabricated and assembled in any competent garage or workshop, and their spare parts are cheap and readily available. Some of the units are large and powerful, as in the Bali Strait purse seine fishery for sardine, where they drive big decked vessels. I have seen one such boat powered by four 50 hp units, fitted two on each side.

In 1980 I listened to a fisheries director from the Maldive Islands tell how that country’s fishermen used sail and paddle for centuries until motors were made available. The leading fishers obtained some and had them installed in their boats. Soon they were out-fishing the rest of the fleet. That led all other fishers to mechanise. But catches then levelled out per vessel, and the total catch of tuna stabilised at its pre-mechanisation level. But now the operating costs of each boat had risen with the need for fuel and engine maintenance. So, in the end it was concluded that the fishermen were worse off. They were not producing any more fish than before, but they were earning less due to higher operational expense. This simple tale of an island country’s experience, carries a lesson for all other fisheries.

Generally speaking, artisanal fishing boats in Africa and Asia, are rarely equipped with magnetic compasses or lead-lines (to measure depth and get an indication of sea-bed type). Barometers are also conspicuous by their absence. Each of those items are simple to use and cheap to obtain, and were relied on for centuries by fishers in the northern hemisphere. But as technical innovations come within the financial means of the small fishers, one finds them purchasing and using cell phones, and even the smaller sat-nav units at times.

If the impact of technological changes on poor countries and less developed fisheries took some bizarre forms on occasions, the steady progress of modernisation on fishing fleets of the USA, UK, Europe, and Japan, could appear brutal and ruthless in comparison. To me it has resembled a juggernaut that could not be questioned, halted, or even slowed down. It was powered by capital investment from companies motivated by profit, and the prospect of long term control over resources and markets. Politicians generally capitulated to their wishes, thinking naively that these developments represented economic progress, and blind to the social and environmental destruction that was often left in their wake.

But to counter the suggestion that resistance to progress would be a Luddite attitude, and hearkening back to the Stone Age, perhaps I can cite the experience of artisanal fishermen on the coast of North Java, an area that I know well, and have visited often since 1973. This coast had over 100,000 canoes and over 300,000 fishermen, when I first worked there over 35 years ago. Today the numbers are much reduced and living conditions improved.

The situation in 1973 was reflective of the economic condition of Indonesia as a whole. The country was still recovering from WW2 and from its war of Independence with the Dutch forces, plus an attempted communist coup in 1965 that resulted in 200,000 to 500,000 deaths in the subsequent purge, depending on whose statistics you accept. Labourers wages were 6,000 Rupiahs a month, which at that time was around US $ 15, working out at 50 cents a day. That was for those who were fortunate enough to get paid employment. Rural women planting and harvesting rice received less (though they were able to take some of the harvested rice home for their families). Many of the unemployed gravitated to the lowest kind of work, - pedalling a becak rickshaw, (pronounced betchack), - the most common form of local transport in the towns and cities. One becak ride then cost about 50 Rupiahs, or 15 cents US. Since none of the operators owned the becak, at least half of the fare went to the merchant who leased the vehicle to them. How these poor people survived and fed their families, was a constant source of wonder to me.

The economic survival of fishing families was also a bit of a mystery as on the surface, it seemed that few of them were earning any more than a labourer or becak driver ashore. Like the rice harvesters, they probably got a few fish to help feed their families. But the individual daily catches of the chompring canoes were pathetically small, - barely enough to fill one 5 kg basket. Occasionally, during periods of fish spawning or migration, catches would be much larger, but these exceptional times were brief annual occurrences. So it was obvious that productivity and financial returns needed to rise substantially.

The problem facing Indonesia then was one that is common to all poor countries with large populations. The work force was too large, the technology too primitive, capital was scarce or unavailable, and if ten thousands of fishers were to be displaced to allow the others to catch more fish, - they needed alternative employment. The alternatives did not exist. Most of the becak drivers lacked paying passengers much of the time, or could only get poor people like themselves who paid 7 cents or less a time. Meantime the burgeoning new cities like Jakarta were struggling to cope with their rapid expansion and the demands it placed on water, sewage, electricity, telephones, and roads. Ugly squatter settlements were growing and spreading along the railway lines and canals, and in many back street slum areas. The city could not contemplate further influxes of redundant fishers or farmers.

But over the next thirty years, the general economic situation improved. With its massive oil wealth, (despite massive corruption), Indonesia was able to invest in heavy industry and to expand its schools, hospitals, roads, communication systems, and food distribution. Millions of jobs were created and these began to absorb the unemployed and under-employed from both urban and rural populations. The changes also affected the agriculture and fishery sectors. Simple mechanisation items like single axle tractors hit the rice fields while power pole propulsion units were introduced on the larger sailing canoes. These innovations were appropriate technology in the true sense of the term, being low cost, low fuel consuming, and easy to operate and repair.

The huge numbers of Java Sea canoes gradually declined as the older boats lived out their life span, and were replaced by smaller numbers of motorised units. The change occurred over a thirty year period giving the fisher population time to adjust and to find alternative sources of income. So, overall, the technological development of the Java Sea small scale fleet occurred with minimal economic or social disruption. But there were other factors at work that had a beneficial impact.

The government had banned the use of shrimp trawlers throughout the Java Sea and Western waters of the archipelago. I thought that this would result in more shrimp being caught by the artisanal fleet, but that happened only to a limited degree. What did occur, to my surprise, was an increase in the amount of fin fish taken by the small boat fleet. The reason lies in the nature of shrimp trawling which destroys three times more fish in weight than the shrimp it captures. This is commonly referred to as trash fish by the shrimpers, but actually it is a mixture of good fish, small fish, and other marine life that is taken up in the trawl net. The populations of these fish species expanded when the trawling stopped, and some small canoes were now coming in with boatloads of the admittedly cheap, but also nutritious fish. It led to resurgence in the use of the Japanese version of the Danish seine net.

Danish seines have been used in Denmark and Scandinavian countries, in Scotland, England, Ireland, and Canada, and to a lesser extent in Australia and New Zealand. They are lightly rigged bottom seines that are pulled over the sea bed at the end of long rope warps that herd the fish towards the net. Danish boats operated the gear by use of a winch while moored to an anchored buoy. Scottish boats towed the gear slowly through the water while also winching the warps in with a 4 or 6 gear winch. The Japanese in contrast did not use the winch until the warps had been towed together, enclosing the circle formed by warp and net at the start of each tow. When I first visited Indonesia there were a few small boats operating a small bottom seine much in the Japanese manner. Ten and twenty years after the shrimp trawl ban in that country, there were scores of boats using such bottom seines. They were landing surprisingly large catches of fish, though the fish were small and of low value.

But the fish were still useful and contained good protein. So they filled a dual role in providing low-cost food for the poor, plus some trash fish that after it was sun-dried, could be used to supplement the feed of poultry and cows or goats. There is a constant need in lands where large populations of poor people have to be fed, for low-cost protein. Normally the poor folk have only rice or noodle, with the addition of tiny amounts of vegetable and chillies. In the countries of Indo-China they might add small amounts of fermented fish paste. But the change in fishing gear and fish catch in the Java Sea, provided an unexpected source of cheap fish protein, suitable for the low-income market.

Technical changes in the modern and western fishing fleets have been driven more by the desire for greater efficiency or economy. The use of huge expensive purse seines to catch herring and mackerel in large quantities has largely given way to mid-water trawls, mostly two-boat mid-water trawls, or pair trawls. These pelagic nets are also large and expensive, but perhaps less so than purse seines. However, the next wave of changes is more likely to be in adaptations that greatly reduce the power and fuel needed to operate those enormous deep sea trawls. The challenge for our big fishers now is not how much fish they can catch, but how little fuel and capital they consume to catch the limited amounts of fish available if the fishery is to be sustained.

In both trawl and line fishing it is now possible to sail as far away, and to catch a similar amount of fish, by using a much smaller boat with less power. So we have had the rise of a fleet of 45 to 75 foot wooden boats that can operate on the grounds worked by much bigger steam trawlers of half a century before. The engine horse-power of the smaller boats may look similar to that of the old steam engines, but the modern diesel engine is small and consumes much less fuel than the coal or oil-fired steam engine.

The fishing gear has also been transformed. Trawl nets of the first half of the 20th century were made of manila, hemp and cotton. Today they are mostly of polyethylene twines and polyamide (nylon). That allows for thinner and stronger twine. The mesh sizes are also different. The old trawl nets had small mesh netting from the cod-end up the bag and out to the wing ends. Modern net-makers and fishers now realise this is not necessary. If the net is well designed and hung to ratios that make every mesh open and taught, small fish like herring can be caught when the wing meshes are as large as one metre or half a metre. What happens apparently is that the taught meshes set up a vibration in the water that guides the fish away from the netting until they are overtaken by the mouth of the bag. They do not attempt to swim through the big meshes till it is too late to do so.

Deep sea long lining has also changed remarkably. I have been on many Japanese tuna long line boats whose decks were covered with hundreds of coils of tarred cotton lines which were linked together and set, mile after mile with their baited hooks, to capture the large pelagic fish. Today most tuna long liners are half the size and tonnage of the older boats, and have about half the engine horse power of their predecessors. The lines are made of monofilament nylon and are wound onto large reels leaving plenty clear deck space for handling the tuna. The older boats had large freezers to handle the fish, but the new fleets use only ice and land the fish in top condition after relatively short trips. Fresh tuna command top prices on the Japanese sashimi markets. In order for frozen fish to get similar prices they have to be frozen down to minus 60 degrees, and that is an expensive process.

Technical change is affecting the handling of fish from the moment of capture, and is helping to raise the value of catches in most of the developed markets. Better to sell half a ton of fish at $ 2 per kilo than double or treble that weight of fish for $ 1 per kg or less. This trend is being pushed by quality control systems that insist on careful handling and low temperature as soon as the fish come out of the sea. Every box of fish is identified in a way that continues through the marketing channel from boat to fish market to merchant’s premises and on to retail outlets. If a poor quality or damaged fish is found, it then becomes possible to identify the merchant, the port, the fishing boat, and even the time and place of capture. In this way, flaws or mistakes in handling can be identified and rectified. The system works only if the fishers are adequately recompensed for the additional time and care required to apply all of the fish handling recommendations.

Putting all that together, I believe that it is now possible to restructure our fishing fleets in ways that will maintain fish production without threatening sustainability of each fish stock, and will minimise both the capital and the fuel or energy cost of fishing, while also maximising the social benefits in the form of employment, prosperity of coastal communities, and the quality and nutritional value of the product to all consumers. We need to work towards the creation and maintenance of local fleets of small boats using low-impact gear, and harvesting local fishing grounds in sustainable ways, and supplying local processing units. We can do it. Let us commit ourselves, - all of us in government and in the industry, to achieving that ideal.

For offshore mackerel and herring large capacity vessels are needed, equipped with refrigerated seawater tanks to maintain the fish in prime condition. They need big ports with the facilities to handle, process and store the large catches. In Britain, Europe, USA, Scandinavia and Japan, such modern large investment fleets are in operation.

Poorer countries should not follow that pattern since their priorities are employment and food production. They should work towards better quality maintenance on their boats, markets and fish plants. But that can also be achieved by having RSW tanks installed in their smaller wooden seiners and trawlers. Much of the fish catch in those lands is lost due to spoilage, or is sold for animal feed. The amount lost to human consumption varies from 20 to 30 per cent of the total catch. Saving the amount currently lost is equivalent to a production increase of that percentage. By introducing the quality and refrigeration improvements one also gives a massive boost to the onshore post-harvest industry, creating more jobs and incomes.


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